June 11, 2024
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Surfside: Holding on to Hope

‘We believe there are survivors.’

Families of the missing in Florida’s Champlain Towers tragedy were first allowed onto the site on Sunday, June 27, when Teaneck’s Joseph Roth and others davened and said Tehillim for their missing loved ones. At press time, search and rescue efforts continued in the hopes of finding survivors of the collapse of the 12-story oceanfront condominium in Surfside, Florida, just north of Miami Beach.

“We still believe that there are survivors and we are working to rescue them,” Col. Elad Edri, deputy commander of the IDF delegation of search and rescue troops who were sent to assist in the search, shared with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, June 30.

There are daily family briefings held at 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. but, sadly, “not a lot of news is coming forward,” said Avi Roth, Joseph’s father. Joseph, with his friends, step siblings and father are spending the days “going to briefings and davening.”

The north side of the Champlain Towers collapsed early Thursday morning, June 24. The shocking tragedy, caught on film, has touched the lives of people throughout the country and around the world. It has perhaps most deeply touched the global Jewish community, as many of those missing are members of that community, including many members of Rabbi Lipskar’s “Shul at Bal Harbor,” one of the largest Chabad shuls in the world.

As bodies are pulled from the wreckage and slowly identified, the families and friends of those still missing remain hopeful that they will experience a miracle and see their loved ones rescued.

The Roths are waiting for information on the whereabouts of Joseph’s missing stepfather, Chaim Rosenberg, and two other family members. In a phone call with Avi, The Jewish Link gained insight into how relatives are coping.

“In Bangladesh, a woman was found 17 days after a collapse,” Avi explained, referring to a story the survivors were discussing of a seamstress buried in the wreckage of a collapsed garment factory in 2013, who was rescued from the rubble. She was reportedly in such good shape that she was even able to walk. “Even though we are six days in, we are holding out hope for survivors,” he said.

Avi noted that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called on his past history of military service, saying that rescuers are “not leaving anyone behind.”

In addition to Chaim, Joseph’s stepsister and her husband, Malky, 27, and Benny, 32, Weisz of Lakewood, are among the missing. The young Weisz couple, married for five years, had just flown into Surfside on Wednesday night. They flew down to visit Chaim, Malky’s father, and spend Shabbat in his new apartment.

Malky works as an auditor at the Roth & Co accounting firm in Farmington, New Jersey. Benny, born in Austria, works in finance.

Chaim (Harry), 52, is an asset manager originally from Brooklyn and a recent resident of Champlain Tower. He purchased the second-floor condo only last month, hoping that its views of the Atlantic Ocean would help him find solace after a turbulent year that saw the loss of his wife, Anna Rosenberg, z”l, to cancer, and both of his parents to COVID-19.

Chaim has been described as a “family man” who founded a young adult center for mental healing at a hospital in Israel in memory of Anna. Before Anna’s death he had spent the prior three years caring for her, a friend shared.

The family is still hopeful that Chaim, Malky and Benny are safe. “We are hoping that because they were in the back [of the building], and that part fell last, maybe they heard something and were able to get to safety,” Avi said.

He shared that Joseph had just returned from Israel, where he had spent his shana bet year at Mercaz HaTorah in Jerusalem, the day before the tragedy. He was preparing to go to Florida to spend Shabbat with his stepfather and step siblings. Malky and Benny had planned to fly down on Thursday, but got an earlier flight and went on Wednesday before Joseph got home. Avi and Joseph flew down to join the other families with missing loved ones on Thursday.

According to Avi, Joseph and Chaim are extremely close and have been in each other’s lives since Joseph was 4. The shared family tragedy of losing Anna further bonded them. Joseph also has a close relationship with his step siblings.

Avi shared, “At the family briefing [Monday] at 5:30, the IDF representative spoke to us. The only glimmer of hope was that two more search and rescue units had arrived. Now there are three Israeli teams searching for survivors.” At press time, the Israeli delegation reportedly had 15 members on site, working together with local first responders and also assisting in the humanitarian effort with the families of the missing, local authorities and Jewish community leaders, according to Yeshiva World News.

On Wednesday, June 30, the death toll rose to 18, with 145 still missing. Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Ray Jadallah told family members at the morning briefing that rescuers had found four additional bodies on Tuesday night, according to Yeshiva World News. At press time, the next of kin had not yet been identified. In addition to the four bodies, Jadallah shared that other remains had also been found.

According to Avi, the Israeli teams are working to piece together where the survivors might be trapped. They are using information from family members about where the bedrooms had been, and studying how the buildings fell, to determine how and where to search.

To assist the effort, Israel’s operational analysis team built a 3D model that mapped the collapsed building in order to streamline the process of locating the missing at the site of the disaster, reported Yeshiva World News.

“The families’ level of frustration is very high,” said Avi. “It doesn’t seem like a lot went on at the beginning, and time is of the essence.”

He continued, “There are eight teams working round the clock in 45-minute shifts.”

According to Avi, a trailer has been set up at the site “for photos, jewelry, etc., to save tokens for the families.” Joseph and his step siblings reportedly saw one of their chairs and part of a white couch, “and asked why rescuers couldn’t look there.”

Rescuers have been slightly hindered by the remaining tower. “The tower that’s left is causing some trouble because there have been some pieces falling; they have to shore it up,” said Avi.

Built in 1981, the building reportedly had more than 130 units, about 80 of which were occupied. It was unclear exactly how many people were inside when an entire side of the building came down.

The former Surfside top building official—who said in 2018 that the building was structurally sound—has been put on leave from his current job as a government contractor, according to Yeshiva World News.

There have been some miraculous stories surrounding this otherwise tragic event. According to Avi, and widely shared on social media, “a guy came home after midnight on Wednesday night and found there was no electricity or heat in the apartment. He was upset and left to go to a hotel. He was saved; he left right before the buildings fell. … And a woman [who lived in the building] came home late from a farbrengen. She heard a lot of noise and thought there was construction going on. It was so noisy; she took her kids out right before the buildings came down.”

Avi noted that there has been an “outpouring of donations to the shul and different organizations.” Since the building’s collapse, people have donated food, clothes, toys and other supplies to The Shul at Bal Harbor. The families are grateful for all of the support, and they encourage everyone to continue davening for additional miracles and the safe rescue of their loved ones.

A fund has been set up to support the families. Visit https://thechesedfund.com/shulofbalharbour/miamitragedy to contribute.

By Jill Kirsch

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